June 13, 2013      

It’s that time of year when many European homeowners look out over their lawns of fescue and rye grass and dread having to keep them neat and trimmed and looking beautiful. A recent study shows that 25 percent are reluctant mowers. Lawns are work.

Reluctant backyard heros

In growing numbers, European homeowners, especially in Sweden, Germany, France and Switzerland, are turning to robot lawn mowers to take over the seasonal chore of cutting the grass on the old homestead. In fact, sales have risen by 30 percent as Europe’s backyards bear witness to yet another site of robot invasion.

Reasons: better pricing, although still much higher than manual machines; better technology, especially sensors; more awareness of robot mowers by consumers; and these robo-mowers also offer a solution for an ageing population that may not be able to mow their lawns.

Across Europe, robot mowers will account for a market of roughly €127M ($170M), says Thomas Olsson, head of Swedish operations at Global Garden Products.

Robot mowers account for 6 percent of the value of all lawn mowers sold in Germany, according to Alexander Theile, senior marketing consultant at GfK Retail and Technology. Forecasts predict that sales of the machines will remain on an upswing through 2015.

Although pricing has come down a bit, sticker shock may still be a significant barrier to their success. Swedish market leader Husqvarna’s models start at €1,700 ($2,268). Most electric walk-behind mowers sell for €300 ($400) to €900 ($1200).

Prices will come down, reports Bloomberg Business News, when they’re inexpensive enough to become mainstream: about €1,000 ($1334) for European buyers.

The aspect of robo-mowers becoming a mainstream homeowner yard tool has encouraged a number of manufacturers to challenge Husqvarna for market share.

Husqvarna AB rolled out the first robot mower in 1995. Today it has six models under the Automower and Gardena brands, which can groom yards ranging from 400 square meters (4,306 square feet) to 6,000 square meters (about 1.5 acres) for some of the larger rigs.

Recently, Robert Bosch GmbH, Deere & Co. and Global Garden Products, Italy SpA have also started offering robotic mowers.

This year, Honda Motor Co. has entered the lists with its own robot. Currently sold only in Europe, the Honda Miimo is the company’s first commercial robotic product for domestic use.

The Miimo comes in two configurations. The standard model costs $3,100; the larger model costs $5,504 and can cut up to three-quarters of an acre. Both are estimated to use around $20.00 of electricity per season to run.

BLOOMBERG BUSINESS NEWS: “We felt we had to get on board,” said Thomas Olsson, head of Swedish operations at privately owned Global Garden Products. “For the first time you hear that people exchange relatively new manual mowers for robots.”

The market for hands-free mowers, which expanded by more than 30 percent, offers a rare bright spot in Europe’s consumer climate. The European market may grow as much as 20 percent annually over the next five years, Olsson said.

Demand for the garden robots has “exploded the last couple of years,” said Mats Gustafsson, owner of Moheda Jarnhandels AB, a hardware store in the southern Swedish town of Moheda. Gustafsson said he’s sold almost 60 robo-mowers this year, compared with fewer than 10 five years ago.

European Boom

“It’s still a niche market in Europe as a whole, but it’s growing so fast so that in some countries it’s now starting to be a mainstream segment,” said Henric Andersson, head of product management and development at Husqvarna.

With time, “it may be as big or bigger than regular mowers” in some countries.

Six percent of the value of all mowers sold in Germany are now robotic, and the country’s automatic mower market is growing in double digits, according to research company GfK Retail and Technology GmbH.

New Entrants

Husqvarna brought the product to North America in 2001, only to retreat a year later after concluding the market wasn’t ready. In addition to the greater use of landscaping services by U.S. homeowners, North American grass, especially in the southern U.S., is generally tougher than European varieties, making it difficult for the machine’s fine blades to work effectively, according to Husqvarna.

Bosch, the world’s largest supplier of car parts, entered the robotic mower market with its Indego machine in Scandinavia. Deere, based in Moline, Illinois, joined the rivalry with the John Deere Tango E5, which it sells in Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland.

Global Garden Products, based in Castelfranco Veneto, Italy, bought its way into the $170M market when it acquired LiCo srl’s Lizard mower marque, and rebranded those machines under its Stiga brand.

Sensor Technology

The mowers use sensor technology to stay within a defined area of the yard, and are typically able to avoid obstacles such as trees and lawn furniture. Some of the mowers, including those made by Husqvarna, move around in random patterns, while others such as Bosch machines follow distinct lines.

Unlike traditional mowers, they don’t collect the cut grass, as the clippings are so small they break down fast and act as fertilizer; instead the rechargable mowers are used frequently, often daily.